Michael Clarke not managing his decline as Australia cruise at Lord’s

Sport Water Bottles

What’s good for Australia is, of course, good for Michael Clarke. On an overcast day at Lord’s Australia’s batsmen cruised to tea and beyond, losing wickets at intervals, but with the air at all times of a team that has wrestled its opponent on to the living room carpet and is now simply feeling around patiently with its spare hand for the coal scuttle.

If Australia were in control there was one, isolated, note of discomfort. England may have been jostled into what already looks a losing position, but they will take some consolation from another jittery, oddly vulnerable innings from Australia’s captain, who now has scores of 38, four and seven in the series and has been dismissed each time in a most un-pup-like fashion: feet lagging, weight askew, ball offered up limply to the field.

An opposition will always clutch at any little fizzle of encouragement, but the exact timing and trajectory of Clarke’s future prospects from here is of just as much interest in his own country. What is certain is that Australia’s captain entered some time ago what we might call the Road Runner years, that period in the career of any much-decorated star player when what is holding them up is no longer form or future promise, but a kind of stalled, starry, declining momentum. Here he goes again: out beyond the cliff face, legs still pumping, eyes fixed grandly on the horizon.

Certainly Clarke has had a strange year and a half, a time of fractured, and then hastily resoldered, connections. His relationship with his own bosses and team-mates has been difficult. The relationship with his own body has been the most strained of all. What remains to be decided for Clarke is simply a divvying up of the end-game.

Australia’s captain knows he’s going. He even knows who’s coming into his place. What he wants now is simply to finish well, and on his own terms. Ideally this would involve a World Cup – tick – and a first Ashes win in England. What seems clear now is that if he is to manage the second of these, Clarke will be driving this team from the rear; Australia’s power as a batting unit being steered by the man whose heightened status over the past two years has helped frame his own exit.

Steve Smith’s double hundred here was beautifully compiled, a restlessly fluent innings that has driven this Australia team through the opening two days of this Lord’s Test. Smith is now pushing Don Bradman as a first-innings run machine over the past two years. Clarke, meanwhile, is lurking just behind the now-departed Shane Watson in terms of average and runs scored since the start of the Perth Test on the previous Ashes tour.

Since then 24 innings have brought two dogged, zombified, hundreds, no fifties and 19 scores below 25. Of more concern is the sense of entropy in Clarke’s batting, the draining away of that vital quick-footed puppery. Some old-stagers can linger on, nature’s curmudgeons, those who have always batted with a senior’s gait. Old, glowering, mustachioed Graham Gooch and mid-career glowering mustachioed Graham Gooch were essentially the same thing. Steve Waugh was always Steve Waugh right from the start, the most fogeyish of tyros; always baggy, never green.

Clarke on the other hand needs to bat like a young man to bat well. His style, even as his body fails a little, is unhelpfully youthful, like a man in the advanced stages of mid-life hair loss who still insists on gelling into a quiff his thinning fringe. Clarke will continue to twinkle, if only dimly, as he did here in the course of a probing early spell from Stuart Broad. England’s tactics were clear: threaten to bounce Clarke, Alastair Cook whistling up a short leg straight away, then bowl full and make him try to play like he used to.

Twice Clarke went for big, wafty, anchored drives to full deliveries. Mark Wood drew a loop up off the bat shoulder from a short delivery, and next ball not so much a dismissal as a euthanising from the crease. Clarke had seven. He was in no real position to play a hook shot. But still he hooked, straight to Gary Ballance close to the square leg umpire.

It was an oddly jarring note. The tourists have won pretty much every battle so far during a Test that is, right now, heading only one way. Most heartening will be the sense of a team being powered by its component parts, the strength in that top three and the excellent English-style lengths found by the bowlers in the final hour, a credit to three days of intelligent planning since Cardiff.

Smith, meanwhile, continues to fill the skies. His 200 here was reached with another glide through the off-side, and celebrated helmet off, arms aloft. On the balcony Australia’s players applauded in formation. In the press box there were shouts and cheers from the calm, neutral hands of the Australian press corps. This was a chanceless, unorthodox, but still somehow beautifully correct innings, the ball making a lovely crack off his bat as those wrists snapped down, foot planted across, back reproachfully straight. Even his dismissal was commendably funky, lbw reverse-sweeping Joe Root.

Water Bottles Clarke’s declaration on 566-8, executed from the balcony with a classic, disdainful backward wave, had a theatrically assertive quality. Not that any real captaincy was needed as Australia’s bowlers were brilliantly incisive, bowling fast and straight, and shifting the gravity of this series in the space of 10 overs as England whimpered their way to 30 for four.

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